Carl Phillips 101
Over the last 30 years, Carl Phillips has carved out a unique place in US poetry, making a career of fusing seeming contradictions. He is a prolific writer with consistent concerns and motifs, and reading his books feels like returning to the same river at different points along its course. Yet his individual poems are consistently unpredictable: oblique but urgent, sensuous but intellectual, studied yet spontaneous. His emphasis on syntax and figuration positions him as an inheritor of the metaphysical tradition of John Donne and George Herbert, but his faithful mapping of his internal landscape also connects him to postmodern poets like John Ashbery. From his first book onward, he has accumulated accolades and prizes at a steady clip—the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Lambda Literary Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize—but only in the last decade has he received widespread recognition as one of the finest contemporary US writers. Moving from his earliest poems to his most recent, this overview aims to present both the singularity and the evolution of his work.
This poem from In the Blood, Phillips’s first collection, reflects directly on his mixed-race identity, something he rarely does in succeeding books. Readers might discern some explanation for this reticence through the poetic influences evident here. Like Wallace Stevens, whose poem “The Snow Man” is echoed in the last stanza here, Phillips is more interested in paradox, mystery, and image than in literal biography. Even more telling may be the blue-black knuckles in the second stanza, which tie the poem to Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays.” Hayden is an important poet for Phillips, not only for his formal adventurousness but also for his aesthetic politics. Hayden was a Black gay poet who was attacked by the Black Arts Movement for not writing about being Black and gay in certain ways. As Phillips recounts in his essay “A Politics of Mere Being,” he endured similar responses to his “own stoop- / shouldered kind of blues.” Both poets became celebrated, despite—or because of—their refusal to let others confine their imaginations to specific markers of race or sexuality.
“As from a Quiver of Arrows”
Written entirely in questions, this incantatory elegy from Phillips’s third book speaks to the uncertainty and void that can attend any death. But if read in the context of its time and Phillips’s other work, the poem speaks to a more historically specific experience: the loss of a lover at the height of the AIDS crisis. Through this lens, the plural speaker here suggests not only the particular survivors of the deceased but also an entire marginalized group struggling to find rituals that can honor such an incalculable loss. The ending acknowledges that turning away in shame or exhaustion and trying to forget or bury this pain is entirely “human.” But, as the final transformation from choral we to an individual I suggests, the hurt is hard to bear alone.
Phillips brings a number of his recurring interests together in this lyrical poem from Pastoral (2000), including the connection between sexuality and divinity, the danger and allure of cruising for sex, and the suppleness of pastoral imagery. But what makes this poem so astounding—and a pleasure of reading Phillips’s work in general—is its “muscled patterns,” its beautiful, free-verseprosody. Each line in the poem’s opening, for example, elegantly revises the one before, transforming the image of shadow into a stag, into “trees leafless”into a lover—“the vision that must / mean, surely, rescue.” This shifting figuration creates surprise after surprise, and the retreating syntax fits the poem’s form to its content: the emptiness that can come after anonymous sex, when the “inevitably / black car” departs.
Many of Phillips’s poems are psychodramas in miniature, mapping the nuances of sentiment and power in the charged space between self and other, I and thou. Often that charge is erotic, and the subjects in question are lovers. Love is certainly part of the equation here, as Phillips makes clear—“Oh yes,” he writes halfway through, “I love her”—but the subject is canine rather than human. The poem focuses on a single act: the speaker unleashes a white dog he knows won’t come back. The result is something like a blueprint—a cross-section—of Phillips’s abiding questions about relationships. Can control be genuinely yielded? How much of anyone else can anyone know? Is distinguishing between the idea of a person and what the person authentically is possible? The poem never arrives at an ultimate conclusion. Instead, by making careful distinctions, it finds a momentary stay against confusion.
“Wild Is the Wind”
With its long, loose lines and digressive movement, the title piece from Phillips’s 2018 collection is typical of his later style. If the finely wrought sentences of his earlier poems stressed elegance and control, the ones here are better suited to capturing the feeling of thinking, of the mind in motion. Their more discursive style makes room, for instance, for other voices, for the italicized snatches of remembered language that drift in and out of this poem like “the occasional lost hunter” emerging from the woods. They make more space for mystery, ambiguity, and unknowing, which, as the poem suggests, is truer to memory, relationships, and lived experience: “isn’t / explanation, at the end of the day,” Phillips asks, “what the sturdier / truths most resist?”
Parataxis is an important feature of Phillips’s more recent poems, which often make bold leaps in register, tone, and syntax. Consider the opening stanza of this piece from his latest book, Pale Colors in a Tall Field: Phillips begins by interpreting a quotation from Marcus Aurelius. But then come two surprising sentence fragments, seemingly disconnected from what was just read. Phillips shifts to the imperative (“Be wild”) before refocusing on the textures and sounds of words themselves (“Bewilder”). The result, for some readers, might very well be bewilderment, especially as—in the sentences that follow—departures continue (a change in pronouns, out-of-nowhere natural imagery). But such juxtapositions can be thrilling too—they can recalibrate readers’ attention and forge fresh connections. If this is a poem about self-doubt, self-delusion, hurt, and confusion in relationships, one of its great strengths is that it creates an experience of those things for readers.
“Entire Known World So Far”
Phillips has an abiding interest in how humans make sense of animals and the natural world, especially the tendency to understand them as signs and symbols. In his earlier “A Kind of Meadow,” for example, he searches for a middle ground between trying to see “trees as trees actually” and reading them as one would in “moral tales,” where the woods are “emblematic of Much // Trespass.” He returns to these concerns in “Entire Known World So Far,” first published in Poetry magazine in 2020. In this poem, he considers the pathetic fallacy in a more overtly political light. Mapping the world—and reading it in terms of human use—makes the world seem “plunderable,” he suggests, an object for colonization; it’s something that one can, like a conqueror, “lay waste to.” In the poem’s final turn, Phillips refutes this way of thinking: “But the world is not like a human body,” he writes. Instead of merely telling readers this, though, Phillips shows it. The mysterious images he ends the poem on—of darkening canyons, of “donkey bells”—demonstrate how much richer the world is when people do not try to force explanation (or their own feelings) onto it.
Benjamin Voigt grew up on a small farm in upstate New York. His poems have appeared (or are forthcoming) in ZYZZYVA, Poetry Northwest, and Sycamore Review. His reviews and interviews have appeared in Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, and Pleiades. He earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama,...